NEWARK, NJ — By now, most people plugged into the Internet have seen the viral clip of 7-year-old Long Islander Wynta-Amor Rogers chanting “No justice, no peace!” alongside protesters, every ounce of her pint-sized body seething with indignation as she marches against police brutality.
Along with the internet’s support for the impassioned little girl came a wave of criticisms that her caregivers were exposing her to dangers and politics. But at protests in cities nationwide, including Newark, families are turning up with children of all ages for what parents are seeing as a crucial learning opportunity.
Lukmanafis Babajide, a politically active psychiatrist at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, said that while a lot of parents may want to shroud their children from issues involving violence and racism, it’s healthier for families to confront these issues head-on.
“Not looking at the problem doesn’t get rid of it, all it does make a child more unprepared. I think because black people have exposure to these traumatic things at such a young age, they are so much better trained in dealing with these things, like ways to interact with the police,” Babajide said.
Every family is familiar with "the talk,” he said, referring to the discussion parents have with their children about puberty and sex, but in black families, there is often an additional talk centered around police brutality.
Aqueelah Sow, a Newark resident and mother of five who brought the whole family to protest at a June 8 People’s Organization for Progress rally, said she coaches all her children on what to do if they have a negative encounter with police.
Though her oldest child is only eight, she said that was the age she first experienced an officer point a gun at her when her father was arrested. Sow tells her children to put their hands up, say their name and age and state that they are unarmed if they’re ever in a similar situation.
“My daughter asked me, ‘Mommy, why would I be armed? I’m eight.’ So I had to tell her the story of when I was eight and had a gun in my face.” Sow said. “By bringing them here, from my one-year-old to my eight-year-old, what my husband and I are trying to teach them is that in order to receive the proper treatment, justice and equality in this country, we have to stand up and fight.”
Babajide said that actively teaching children to resist injustice can have an empowering effect. Black children are especially prone to mixed messaging about their identities and history, so establishing a basis of self-understanding informed by black culture and activism creates confidence.
“It’s paramount for black children to learn this, otherwise, who is going to teach them?” he said. “Black kids, if they’re going to be taught by white institutions, are going to be confused their whole lives, because those white institutions are not going to come out and say, ‘The reason you’re going to struggle more to make it to where you want to is because we are racist.’”
Patricia Anthony, a member of POP protesting at the June 8 rally with her 17-year-old daughter Onika, said she has been organizing against police brutality for decades. She hopes her daughter will carry forward the work she’s done and has taken her daughter along with her to POP meetings for years.
“I tell her that this has been going on for way too long, that we need to organize and put some real pressure on the powers that be to make some serious changes, legislative changes, like the Civilian Complaint Review Board,” Anthony said. “I tell my daughter that her mother has been in the street fighting for a long time and it’s her time to take up the mantle, and push the agenda forward and make some change”